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Lions Roar : January 2019
would turn away from his teachings, but he would try to teach those who could truly listen and understand. The Buddha contemplated who he should teach first. He thought of the two holy men he’d studied with, but he knew they had passed away. Then he thought of the five men he’d practiced asceticism with. They’d shunned him when he started to practice the middle way, but he knew they were sincere seek- ers and might listen. The five ascetics were residing in a park where deer roamed freely, in a place now called Sarnath, located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. So, taking his leave of the Bodhi tree, the Buddha walked more than 160 miles to find his old companions. When they saw him coming, they resolved to ignore him, but there was something new and remarkable about his bearing and, despite themselves, they were drawn to him. This, says Shantum Seth, is when “the Buddha became the buddhadharma.” On that day in Deer Park, the Buddha taught for the very first time. In this, his first sermon, he taught the four noble truths, and in doing so laid the foundation of the world religion we know today as Bud- dhism. He taught the truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path. An ascetic named Kaundinya was the first to realize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Then soon after, the other four ascetics in the Deer Park came to the same realization. They were the first Buddhist monks, and the Bud- dhist sangha—the world’s oldest continuous human institution—was born. The Buddha went on to teach for forty-five years. He and his growing number of fol- lowers crisscrossed the plains of northern India, going everywhere on foot. He often returned to Sarnath and the surrounding area. Today, the most iconic feature of Sarnath is the massive Dhamek Stupa, built in 500 CE. Stupas are Buddhist mound-like structures that often contain relics, but Dhamek is solid and relic-less. Other nota- ble sites in this historical city include additional stu- pas and the Archaeological Museum Sarnath, which houses such antiquities as a lustrously polished sculpture of four lions, each facing a different direc- tion. These four united felines were crafted under the auspices of King Ashoka and originally topped a pil- lar in Sarnath. Today they’re recognized around the world as the official symbol of the Republic of India. As I wander Sarnath, I linger near the Dhamek Stupa, feeling small next to its girth of more than ninety feet. From a distance, it looks unornamented but up close I can see that it’s delicately chiseled with floral and geometric designs, human figures, and even geese. Geese, I’m told, symbolize the sangha because they’re birds that live in community, taking turns leading and caring for each other. This reminds me of two Theravadin monastics—one elderly, one young—who are participating in the conclave. The young monk takes such tender care of his teacher. Near the Dhamek Stupa stands the Mula- gandhakuti Vihara, a temple established in 1931 with an interesting—and interna- tional—backstory. In 1891, Anagarika Dhar- mapala, a Buddhist revivalist from Ceylon, went on pilgrimage to India. At that time, the Mahabodhi Temple had recently been restored but—since Buddhism was no longer practiced in India—the temple had been converted into a place of worship of the Hindu deity Shiva. When Dharmapala saw this, he resolved to help bring Buddhism back to India and, as part of his efforts, he spoke about Buddhism at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. On the way back, his ship docked in Hawaii and, there, Mary Foster, a friend of a friend, went to meet him. She was a wealthy American woman in emotional turmoil, and Dharmapala consoled her with Bud- dhist teachings. After that, Foster gave him a substantial donation, and he used that money to build Mulagandhakuti Vihara, marking where the Buddha meditated during his first rainy season retreat after awakening. The Buddhist king Ashoka placed this famed statue atop a pillar in Sarnath. Today, it’s the official symbol of the Republic of India. The Parinirvana Temple was built in 1956 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death in present-day Kushinagar. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2019 38